Merit pay program good for teacher collaboration, unclear how it impacts student learning

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 23 2011 9:52 p.m. MST

The Utah Education Policy Center at the University of Utah conducted an assessment of a performance pay pilot program, which it reported to the Education Interim Committee.

Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — Teachers at five Utah schools appreciated the bonuses they received through a performance pay pilot program last spring, but the incentive alone didn't bring about noticeable change in student performance, according to a recent report.

The Utah Education Policy Center at the University of Utah conducted an assessment of the pilot program, which it reported Wednesday to the Education Interim Committee. Created by lawmakers in 2009, the program was designed to reward good teachers whose students performed well, as well as those teachers who performed well on principal and parent evaluations.

"They worked very hard, they were very proud to be a part of this program," said Kristin Swenson, with the policy center. "They took this very seriously."

According to the summary report, some of the schools performed slightly better on student assessments during the program, but as a whole saw no noticeable difference. Fifty-six percent of teachers surveyed, however, said they modified their classroom instruction as part of the program, and 55 percent said they increased communication with parents.

In the development year, all participating teachers received the full $2,000 bonus for their efforts in developing the criteria. Teachers spent long hours hammering out the details of their respective school plans, she said. The second year of the program, teachers received bonuses based on criteria — 40 percent was based on student achievement, 40 percent on quality of instruction and 20 percent on parent satisfaction. Those raises ranged from $500 bonuses to a $2,600. The average bonus was $1,786.

Swenson said it was difficult to compare data among the schools since they each developed their own criteria. Those individualized evaluation plans proved to be both a strength and barrier, she said.

"The teachers that were at these schools where they were more instrumental in developing the plans expressed more satisfaction with the program," Swenson said. But, "It took a lot of time. It also made the evaluation extremely difficult."

Swenson gave lawmakers recommendations in the event they choose to broaden the scope of the program in the future. She said they should consider offering a menu of predetermined evaluation plans on which schools could base their own evaluation systems. She recommended they still honor teacher collaboration and allow them to craft their own.

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he didn't know how to interpret some of the recommendations, since they seemed to conflict.

"That seems to be at odds with collaborative efforts and individualized programs," Hughes said of the recommendation that generalized plans be made available to schools. "I saw this as a mixed bag of data and information."

Hughes wondered if the raises were significant enough and varied enough to provide a real incentive for teachers to work hard.

"The teachers said that the money wasn't motivating," Swenson said, "but they also said that they don't teach for the money."

Swenson said the program could be successful on a larger scale, but it needs to be approached delicately since merit pay systems can create conflict just as much as they can foster collaboration.

"The plans and the planning all focused on collaboration," she said. "They did not want to breed competition among the teachers and that needs to be maintained."

Schools participating in the program are: Midway Elementary, Ashman Elementary in Richfield, Manila Elementary in Pleasant Grove, Wasatch Peak Academy in North Salt Lake and Canyon Rim Academy in Salt Lake.

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com

Twitter: mollyfarmer

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